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What Does a Video Game Systems Designer Do? And How to Become One?

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Buckle up, today we’re talking about game systems designers. Much like the term engineering can cover everything from programming to bridges to cars to chemicals, game systems are broad, diverse and highly specialized.

At the core, a game system designer is the type of game designer who develops the parts of the game that are not directly controlled by the player themselves. This can include the way game mechanics affect the game universe, cameras, progression systems, overall balance and resource systems.

While a content designer is laser focused on a specific piece, the systems designer is a step removed, concerned about the working of the whole.

Examples of daily work in game systems design

When I was a game systems designer at Riot, I might spend a week developing standards for status effects and working with Mitchell Malloy on iconography to convey consistency between stuns, fears, airborne effects and charm.

The next week I’d be reviewing the amount of gold generated by different champions based on the lane and role they held.

gds analyzing game components

(Example of analyzing game system components from GLHF)

Another week could be spent revising level-up rates and armor growth curves on turrets and jungle minions.

A month later, I might be working to tweak camera settings inside of spectator mode or looking at the drop rate of in-game currency.

In my time working on Ori & The Will of the Wisps, I revised UI elements, defined the health and damage multipliers of every monster by zone, determined the amount of spirit light (money) generated per kill, per zone and reward, and adjusted the price of items accordingly.

As you can see, which system you’re working on in this job varies from person to person and even week to week.

Here’s a list of just some of the sub categories of systems designer, and the game elements they might work on:

  • Class & Balance Systems Designer:
    • Health, Damage and Stat Curves
    • Talent Tree Structure and Rules
  • Item Designer:
    • Unique Effects, Budget Progression and Strategic Niche
    • Item Weight, Equipment Weight and Load Systems
    • Crafting Costs, Resource Usage        
  • Mechanic Designer: Side Effects, Interactables and Trigger Conditions
  • Camera Designer: Position and Movement, Enemy Priority, Cover Position & Dynamics

By the way, as you read this post, feel free to join #career-guidance channel in Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice from game devs of all levels including me on

  • Breaking into the industry
  • Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
  • Navigating your current career path

You can also get notified each week on the latest game design job listings and actionable tips here 👇

Working with the rest of the game design team

While every team has a unique structure and on smaller teams people will bridge many roles, what game systems designers do is always closely linked to the work of other game designers around them.

For example, let’s say systems designers for an open world game are setting general rules for enemy detection. They decide on a mixture of patrol paths, pause timers and facing angles on specific nodes of that path that enables good open-world stealth gameplay.

Level designers then create a single example camp to test it out. Realizing that players can’t tell when an enemy has seen them, they alert the team that new features are needed to solve this issue.

The systems designers then work with the UI and animation teams to add ? or ! alerts and enemy animations.

Sound and audio designers then make unique and clear sounds to warn the player that they’ve been detected even if they can’t see the enemy.

gds systems designer level designer qa collaboration

As level designers create more areas and QA tests the game, the systems designer responsible uses their feedback to adjust aggression radiuses, detection arcs and the audible distance values.

Finally, a content designer goes in and tweaks specific enemy values in-game to make each experience perfect. *chef’s kiss*

LOZ BoW enemy alert
(Enemy alert example from Breath of the Wild)

How to Become a Game Systems Designer

Follow these 6 steps.

Step 1: Understand if game systems design career right for you?

If you have good analytical and organizational skills, can bend video game math and logic to your will, and have a strong set of abstract reasoning skills, then systems design is likely a good match for you.

If not, see if other types of game designers matches your context better.

One downside is that you will almost never get the same amount of visibility or notoriety that content developers achieve by making a player’s favorite pieces of content.

However, your system design will have a broader impact on the game as a whole and define more of the game experience than any other single contribution.

gds content vs systems designer recognition

If you need the glory and validation, content designer is more likely to get you likes on social media. But if you’re a game designer who cares about how people play and can focus on the bigger picture, then system designer is a fantastic fit.

“Funsmithing” is a selfless task, focused on bringing joy to others, and systems design takes this to heart at the project level.

Step 2: Learning key game systems design skill set

If you decide to walk this path and be competent at it, you must hone the following skills:

Skill 1: Understand game design principles and be able to apply them pragmatically. You can’t develop the right features unless you can identify the type of game you’re making.

A single-player power fantasy and a competitively balanced multiplayer game have completely different needs.

Skill 2: Understanding and be able to identify abstract expression of repeating underlying patterns, concepts, and structures across different games and systems.

This will empower you to transform and transfer those concepts when making your own game features.

For example: the perk system in Call of Duty isn’t much different than upgrades in Hades, but the timing of when you make your choices is different, which supports each game’s respective strategic goals.

Skill 3: Learn and be able to apply the math that translates in the type of gameplay that evokes desired emotional experience and goals of a resource flow system.

In addition, utilizing statistics, spreadsheets and flow charts will dramatically increase your ability to be impactful as a systems designer.

Skill 4: Knowing some programming languages or at least basic coding scripting skills can help here as well.

Learning C#, Lua, Python and C++ on the side will open up a lot of possibilities. Without scripting, you’re limiting yourself to just what’s available out of the box in game engines.

Even if you’re not on the path to being a full technical designer, understanding the constraints your engineers are under will enable you to understand and communicate with them effectively. Don’t discount the value of a little coding knowledge even for non-technical roles.

Game analysis

Skill 5: Cultivate a deep curiosity into the nature of fun. Analyzing what goes into making a successful game is the first step to deeply understanding this industry.

No degree or online resource can do this all for you in one easy single package. It takes time and experience.

However, with effective mentor guidance and insight, you can develop these skills and skip parts of the trial and error.

Step 3: Be hands and actually make games

Game jams and experimenting with creative ideas are a start, but deep experience requires years of facing the many random obstacles that come across your path while developing new games across many genres.

You can also use this free game design workshop where you’re provided with video instructions, templates, examples, playtesting, and feedback to build a playable prototype without coding.

challenge page timeline graphic
(Build a Game Challenge timeline)

If you don’t have the experience to code on your own, board games and card games both require the same kind of critical thinking and abstract understanding of resources that will be immensely helpful inside the games industry.

Step 4: Reverse engineering

Take some time to reverse engineer your favorite games. If you haven’t heard the term before, this means breaking down a game into its systems and parts such that you could rebuild it if necessary.

Break these games down into both their structural and emotional components and understand:

  • What are all the moving parts that make up a system?
  • What decisions were made about how these parts interacted?
  • How does that shape the play experience?

Much like disassembling a car teaches you how it works, reverse engineering how games and systems work not only develops your skills, it also creates a stronger portfolio for a systems designer.

Step 5: Start working in an entry level game design position

If you’re currently not working as a game designer, you will need to first start from an entry-level position to get the basics down.

As a new hire, you may not have a specialized title and could be asked to help with a variety of tasks.

Rather than making systems from scratch, you’ll usually start by

  • Creating content on top of already built systems
  • Cleaning up bugs in existing systems such as:
    • Making minor balance changes
    • Investigating logic errors other designers have introduced while prototyping
    • Fixing small content issues
    • etc.

Due to the interdependent nature of the work, systems designers need to understand many pieces of the whole to be effective.

GDS ad course direct3

See How You Can Learn the Gameplay Design Abilities Game Studios Are After To...

These types of tasks will build your foundation to platform into the systems designer role. This applies to any specialized game designer roles.

💡 Tip: Be clear and upfront with the studio leadership about your interested for the systems designer role when you start, so they will make a mental note to assign you responsibilities accordingly.

A strong manager who is helping you specialize in systems design will likely have you doing small support tasks with a lot of different teams and technologies.

In addition to learning the work, use this opportunity to build trust and gratitude from your teammates and colleagues.

This kind of social backbone is needed when you begin integrating systems that will suddenly require support, extra work and buy-in from others on the team.

For example: My colleague Daniel Kramer began transitioning into a role as a systems designer by developing bots to automate testing for class design.

Initially it was laborious work to script each spell, ability and priority by hand, but by doing so, he could produce in-game results nightly to showcase how changes made by class design affected endgame balance.

His consistent, diligent work helped dramatically improve the quality of Mists of Pandaria and ultimately became a systems designer.

If you need help getting hired, check out this guide on how to pass the studio hiring process efficiently.

Game Systems Designer FAQs

What is the average salary of a game systems designer?

On average, a systems designer makes between $71,000 to $115,000 per year.

game systems designer salary
(Image from Glassdoor)

Because of the technical skill and relatively behind-the-scenes work that comes with game systems work, it tends to pay better than other game design positions.

Do you need a degree to get into game development?

No, you don’t. Computer science and mathematics degrees can give you many of the skills needed to be effective in these roles, but ultimately you need to showcase you can do the analysis work that is needed for the game.

What other similar specialized game design roles should you consider?

If you’re more programming-heavy, check out technical designer jobs. This is a half-programmer, half designer role which is in a similar pay bracket and uses similar skills.

If you love creating tools, tools design puts an even more selfless focus on the work, and helps developers create their games.

If you’re also heavily invested in story or have a practical writing background, narrative systems design may also be an option.

Wrap-up

If this introduction to my favorite corner of game design interests you, I hope you join me in this rewarding and fulfilling career.

If you have any questions or are planning for your next project and are looking for people to trade ideas and resources with, come introduce yourself on our Discord.

Game design is always better as a collaboration.

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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If somehow it turns out this isn’t for you, unsubscribe any time.

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan